A new statewide survey by EdSource suggests that parents are eager to get involved in school district spending decisions, but underscores the need for districts to actively engage parents if they are to fulfill their new role under the state’s Local Control Funding Formula.
Across the board, parents are generally satisfied with their children’s school, but the poll revealed differences between high- and low-income parents. The survey suggests that districts will need to make extra efforts to connect to low-income parents, who reported a higher degree of dissatisfaction with their child’s school than parents with higher incomes. Lower-income parents were also more likely to feel that only a small group of parents are engaged in decision-making opportunities at their child’s school.
The survey of 1,003 parents across California is the first to look at how connected and involved parents are with their children’s schools. It found that the majority of parents had heard “nothing at all” about the state’s new finance system, which requires districts to involve parents in spending decisions. Altogether, 57 percent said they had not heard of the formula compared with 9 percent who said they knew a great deal about it.
But when they were given a short explanation of the Local Control Funding Formula, three-quarters of parents said they supported the idea and close to three-quarters were willing to commit from an hour to 10 hours per week helping guide school spending decisions. Only one in 10 opposed the reforms, which were signed into law in July by Gov. Jerry Brown. The new finance system gives districts much more say over how funds are spent. The law also names parent involvement as one of several “priority areas” that schools must focus on.
The survey of public school parents was conducted via telephone by the polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3) between Nov. 5–12, and was underwritten by the California Endowment.* The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Contrary to popular perceptions that many parents are disengaged from their children’s schools, three-quarters of parents surveyed said they were “very” or “somewhat” involved in their child’s school, with close to one-third (30 percent) saying they were very involved. Most also gave favorable ratings – an A or B – to their children’s schools, and most report high levels of communication with them, thus creating a good foundation for parents to become involved in district financial decision-making.
However, said Justine Fischer, president-elect of the California State PTA, the challenge will be to involve parents beyond supporting their own children in school.
Lisa Berlanga, executive director of the parent advocacy group San Diego United Parents for Education, agrees.
“The poll shows that the way most parents are engaged is in traditional ways, such as volunteering in class or attending a parent-teacher conference,” she said. “They don’t participate in the decision making of schools.”
The survey also reveals distinct differences among high-income and low-income parents:
• Nearly four in 10 parents (39 percent) who report incomes of $100,000 or more describe themselves as “very involved” in their child’s school compared to only 24 percent of those reporting incomes of $30,000 or less.
• Forty-three percent of parents with incomes higher than $100,000 give their child’s school an A, compared to only 25 percent of parents with incomes of under $30,000.
• Thirty-nine percent of low-income parents feel that only a small group of parents have the opportunity to engage in decision-making at their child’s school, compared to only 19 percent of high-income parents who feel that way.
These differences suggest schools will have to work harder to engage low-income families, whose children are targeted for extra funds under the new finance system.
Schools need to overcome language and cultural barriers because many of the low-income children come from immigrant families, said Oscar Cruz, president and CEO of Families in Schools in Los Angeles, a nonprofit whose mission is to involve parents in improving their children’s schools.
During an LCFF public forum Tuesday night at LeConte Elementary School in Berkeley, Leo Stegman, whose daughter recently graduated from Berkeley High, said districts have to consider new ways to bring low-income and minority parents into the process, starting with meeting locations.
“Meetings shouldn’t all take place in schools, there should be some out in the community,” Stegman said.
Cruz said that many parents don’t feel welcome at schools and believe that teachers and administrators see them as a burden on the system instead of understanding their dreams – why they immigrated to this country. Immigrants with very little formal education also need to feel empowered to question well-educated teachers, he added.
“What parents want is a close relationship with their own local school and to feel that their role matters,” Cruz said.
Overall, parents cited a lack of time and conflicting work schedules as the major obstacles of getting more involved in giving input on how funds will be spent.
Parents also say there are several steps schools could take to increase their involvement, including giving plenty of advance notice of meetings and assuring them that they will have a meaningful voice in the process. Nearly half said child-care at meetings would also make a difference, and a smaller number said transportation and translations from English would also help.
“If you are committed to getting broader parent involvement, you are not going to do things the way you have been doing them, such as holding meetings at times when parents can’t attend,” said Hope Salzer, board member of Educate Our State, a San Francisco-based parent advocacy group.
Districts should also provide child care and a meal for families to make it easy for parents to attend, she said.
“If kids have secure, safe and age-appropriate child care, parents can focus on the school business,” Salzer said.
Besides improving day-to-day relations with parents, districts need to use some of their funds to provide training to parent leaders so they can make informed financial decisions, Cruz said. Almost two-thirds of the parents surveyed said they would be interested in such trainings.
Berlanga said it may not be as important to explain the new finance system to every parent as it is to get meaningful input from parents on where the funding should be spent in their school.
“What’s critical to ask is what is going to make a difference in your community, what do your kids need,” she said. “That’s the question any parent can answer whether they understand the Local Control Funding Formula or not.”
To reach parents, the poll indicates, districts may need to rely on more traditional methods of communication. Respondents said they learn about their children’s school primarily through conversations with their children, information sent home with students, conversations with the child’s teacher, and school newsletters. They relied much less on newer methods of communication such as online networks and text messages from the school.
*The California Endowment provides financial support to EdSource, but has no say in its editorial decisions.
Senior reporter Kathryn Baron contributed to this report. Contact reporter Susan Frey. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.